A Priest’s Spiritual Journey

By Father Micéal Noone

I arrived at Victoria Station in London in September 1984 with a bag in each hand, all my worldly possessions. I had been ordained a priest twelve years before, spending eight years on the missions in Kenya and four teaching students for the priesthood. 1984-85 was to be my sabbatical, and an opportunity for doing some training in psychotherapy or counselling. Some people had spoken of me as being a good listener and of feeling a sense of peace after seeing me for help. I thought that counselling would be a good way of exercising my priesthood. I secured a place on a body-oriented psychotherapy training course and set about finding myself a Jungian analyst.

Why therapy? Why Jungian? Surely the Church’s sacramental life and prayer should be sufficient healing for the soul? This latter point I have heard made from time to time by some church people.

First I’ll go back to 1977, to the glorious June of that year, a time which saw me on Retreat and suddenly finding meditation and prayer easy. I found I could spend hours in quiet contemplation either sitting in a church or in a remote spot out of doors. This brought me a great sense of peace and a feeling that I had “found it”. We were required to keep a journal as a way of progressing and prayer and this I did.

I returned to Kenya in the autumn of that year and there again meditation and prayer seemed to give me a great sense of purpose and satisfaction. I would spend a day in the church with bread and water to sustain me. I thought heaven had hit earth! I also began recording my dreams because they had suddenly become very vivid. Then a priest colleague returned from the United States and recounted staying in a monastery where they “worked with dreams”. “They mean something, you know,” he added. News to me! We started a bit of amateur dream interpretation among ourselves. He introduced me to some books written by Jungian analysts. In addition, I read Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections.

Meanwhile, I felt more drawn to a semi-monastic life. I got permission from my bishop to spend three days of each week in prayer while doing normal parish work for the rest of the week. I built a traditional African mud and grass hut near the mission house and all seemed to be going well.

But not for long. One evening, coming up to my mission after a day spent in prayer and feeling rather satisfied, a dog appeared. It barked so loudly and viciously that I exploded with rage and found myself rather out of control, throwing sticks and stones at the animal in an ineffectual attempt to inflict some damage on the thing and drive it away. That was a turning point. Where was my prayer in this murderous rage? I gave up my prayer house in panic. My life became increasingly disturbed. All was not well. Some demons might be cast out only by prayer and fasting but for whatever was bothering me, prayer and fasting were not enough.

During my next home leave, in 1980, a priest friend suggested therapy, and so it was that the next four years saw me working in our missionary society’s central house and seeing a psychiatrist (who worked as a psy­chotherapist) regularly. During that time, I also explored many of the thera­peutic options then available in Dublin. I did feel cared for and held during that time but there was a hot untouched core that remained to be dealt with.

And so, as I have said, September 1984 saw me in London with the names of three Jungian analysts. The first one I saw, a woman, saved my life. I was by then an extremely frustrated man with little capability of relationship, empathy or sense of who I was. I was burdened by an overwhelming sense of need but I didn’t have an idea what that need was. “You want to be accepted, don’t you?” my analyst said at our first meeting. I hadn’t realised.

I began seeing this analyst regularly; initially once a week, later I saw her twice a week. Noticeable was the importance she attached to dreams. I faith­fully recorded my dreams, presenting her with a copy and a copy for myself. ‘What does the dream say?’ was something I often heard from her. Not that she interpreted every dream. Some were left simply to do their work, a work of providing guidance from the unconscious and pointing towards the meaning behind the present impasse. Nor was it easy. Almost as meangingful as the analytical process itself were the ancillary helps she suggested to me. I was to work with an art therapist, Martina Thomson, wife of David Thomson, author of the much loved Woodbrook. Martina gave me clay to work with, and what emerged from the weekly dialogue between my hands and the evocative dark moist clay over four years was a process parallel to the analysis and of great importance to me. Martina believes that it is art not interpretation that heals, and so interpre­tation was kept to a minimum, often a silent look or a “hmn” or “that’s fine, I think” if I expressed anxiety.

Some time later, my analyst suggested that I visit the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “Just the Gothic section, don’t try to get through it all,” was her advice. And so I did, looking at those works from early medieval Europe until, not long into my visit, I began to feel quite weak and my knees started wobbling. “Now, have these physical sensations anything to do with this art that I am looking at?’ was the question that I asked myself. It was the first of many visits to that museum and to the British Museum where the early Greek sculpture (especially the Cycladic) became a favourite stamping ground. Those Cycladic forms of four and a half thousand years ago even­tually became the inspiration for my own stone carving. My shaking knees were the first indication to me that art has the power to move a person.

Another development that started to shift something within me was the library of the Russian Orthodox Church which I began to attend from time to time. At once very down to earth and, at the same time most spiritually moving, it seemed to bring opposites together. The priests there are very spiritually and ritually oriented. I was startled one day to see Father John in his long flowing black cassock striding through the cathedral with his little two and a half year old son under his arm. It put me thinking because I had often wondered about this: should I get married, or should I remain a priest? A question prompted by my meeting a woman and starting a relationship with her.

But back to the analysis. At the beginning I suppose I can say that I felt hopeless and despairing. I felt helpless in the hands of a harsh fate with a sense of losing control of my life and of not feeling at home either with myself or the world. It was a darkness akin to Dante’s Hell because not only did I not have light for my path but I did not have any great sense that there was light. I felt at times as if I had never been welcomed into the world nor securely held. It’s like arriving at a distant place unexpectedly and finding that your would-be hosts have no room or are too harassed to extend a wel­come. Instead, all one hears, expressed or not, is “oh, dear, we’ve no time/room/food.”

I was to get the same reaction from the church authorities years later when I told them I intended to get married and, at the same time, remain a priest. I sensed a not unkindly “what are we to do with him?” Never to have felt welcome or held is akin to a feeling that one had never been born. Such a person will never have “got a life.” Samuel Beckett was struck by something that Jung once said in a lecture about a woman patient that he had: she had never lived because she had never really been born. Such a child will feel extreme dereliction, despair, a sense of being abandoned and exposed to an icy cruel fate and, accompanying that, a sense of outrage and anger. The danger is that such a murderous volcano will be capped by an icy frozen exterior. ‘Calm’ and ‘quiet’ were words often used to describe me.

Jung spoke about an instinct towards wholeness. That is, I take it, a natural flow of energy that wants to guide the one-sided personality in the direction of becoming more complete, more whole. The energy of the instincts in general is valued in a Jungian anlaysis because the ego can have all the ideals in the world but it needs instinctual energy to carry it. Just as a horse carrying the rider, albeit it is the rider who trains and guides the horse. This is illustrated by the story of Hercules. This hero was set the challenge of cleaning out the king’s stables which, housing his herd of 700 horses, had not been cleaned for seven years. Hercules’ solution was to divert the course of a river so that it flowed through the stables. A natural flow effects the seemingly impossible task. Of course, instincts may appear destructive and threatening at the beginning of an analysis. Pent up anger and sexuality might appear in dreams as a raging bull or lion and there is patient suffering, waiting and endurance until these are transformed. The bull as Minotaur eats up all the youthful hopes of a community symbolising, I would say, a destructive cycle in a person’s life of repressed anger alternat­ing with periods of depression and lethargy. The bull sacrificed appeases the gods and provides a feast for the people.

In analysis, the once abandoned, betrayed child learns to sacrifice his or her pent up rage. This notion of sacrifice must be the key difference that I met in Jungian analysis – I’d previously heard a lot about “letting your anger out.” The question should be addressed: could not a religious person find all the help they need within the Church’s sacramental life of the Eucharist, Confession, meditation and prayer? They might, but some will undoubtedly need more. As I see it, you could express the difficulty like this: ultimately, the goal of religion is that we surrender ourselves to God’s love and grace. You could say, we give ourselves to God. But you cannot give that which you do not have. The person in the grip of unconscious complexes is not self-possessed. To put it another way, to be in union with God is to welcome the infinite possibilities and the infinite richness of life. But a person whose first experience of life is somehow to have been judged unworthy and un­welcome will take everything that life puts their way and try to make it into a bandage for their wounds.

For example, prayer, a good thing in itself, may be seized upon as a psychic tranquilliser and used as a means of flight from life. “Know thyself” was the sage advice of the ancients. At any rate, the spiritual life as practised by the early church Fathers would have involved placing oneself firmly under the guidance of a director, one who had already travelled some distance along the way of spirituality and holiness.

A final question regarding the difference between the work of the analyst and that of the priest. Has not the former displaced the latter? Many people now see counselling as a replacement for confession, do they not? I would answer, yes, they probably do but they ought not to do so. The roles of priest and therapist undoubtedly overlap. But there is a clear distinction between them.

A person goes for therapy. He addresses the counsellor thus: “I feel awful. Nothing is going right in my life. I’ve lost my job, I feel depressed, even suicidal at times. I’m at my wits end and I don’t know where to turn. A friend gave me your name, and I hope you can help.” The analyst will listen, and try to work out a psychological map of that person’s psyche and thus hopefully discover the meaning and potential behind the present impasse. Note: it is the analyst that is addressed and projection is made upon the analyst. Another person goes to a priest: She begins, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.” But then she turns to address God: “Confiteor Deo omni potenti … I confess to Almighty God”. What the penitent says is not so much a discussion as a prayer. “Lord have mercy on me a sinner. I am burdened by my sin and weighed down by my guilt: I am sorely in need of God’s mercy.” The priest replies in this vein: “Take heart. Do not be afraid. God loves you with an everlasting love. Jesus has taken the burden of your guilt on himself on the Cross.” And adds in the time-honoured for­mula used by the collective over the centuries: “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Note here that the penitent addresses God and the projection is not upon the priest. The priest is merely a servant of the dialogue between the person and their God image. Sometimes the priest wrongly takes this projection upon himself and assumes the role of interrogator and judge. This is not right. It is bad for the priest because he is in danger of becoming inflated and it is unhappy for the penitent whose burden my be increased.

Father Micéal Noone is a priest and sculptor. He lives in Galway with his wife and two children. Each Sunday at 10.30 a.m. he celebrates the Eucharist in his studio in Dominick Street, for whose who are “on the edge.”

Bibliography

Bani Shorter, An Image Darkly Forming: Women and Initiation. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1987.

If Ritual Dies, Guild of Pastoral Psychology, London 1989.

Martina Thomson. On Art and Therapy, Virago, London 1989.